For most of his career (35 years, 3 months and 21 days), Colin Luther Powell served in the army. That's why he has always identified himself as a soldier. "I'll never not be a soldier," Powell says. "You can't serve 35 years and say you are no longer a soldier. So the Army will always be dear and precious to me."
As Powell rose through the Army ranks, he received many awards in recognition of his outstanding achievements and learned important lessons, which have guided his life. "You learn what your responsibilities are, how to take risk, how to put your life on line for a mission," he says.
It was also during these years, that he learned the meaning of leadership. "Leadership is the ability to motivate people to achieve objectives," Powell says. "Leadership in my context is the ability to solve problems. I think I'm a pretty good leader because I can solve problems."
In Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell, biographer Karen DeYoung explains the influence the Army had on Powell's personality and way of thinking.
"The Army is an institution, and like all large institutions it operates according a lot of rules and a lot of formulas," she says. "Powell himself was a person who felt comfortable in the institution where the rules were very specifically drawn. He carried that belief in operating within an institution, belief in the orderly decision making process into his work in government. It also made him very much a pragmatist, a moderate and, probably some would argue, overly cautious about grand policies."
If the military made Powell pragmatic, his childhood made him determined. He grew up in New York City, the son of hardworking parents who had emigrated from Jamaica. Powell's mother was a seamstress, and his father was a shipping clerk.
"My father was a wonderful little man, five-foot-two (1.57 meters tall). His status in life was low," he says. "He was a laborer, but he instilled pride in his children."
Colin Powell has much to be proud of: the first African-American and the youngest officer ever to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military; the only American ever awarded the Medal of Freedom by two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; the first African-American appointed Secretary of State, in 2001.
He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his leadership in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
General Powell retired from the Army shortly after that war, and immersed himself in civilian life. But he remained a popular figure in the public eye. He wrote his autobiography, gave speeches, and found himself mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, even though no one knew his political affiliation. He returned to government service in 2000 as a key foreign policy adviser for another presidential candidate, George W. Bush, who appointed him Secretary of State.
Four years ago this month, Secretary Powell took the president's case for war against Iraq to the United Nations, and, says biographer Karen DeYoung, that still haunts him. "I think he disappointed a lot of people, not only specifically for his own promotion of public agreement to the war, but also on the range of ideas that he came in thinking he was going to be the President's principle foreign advisor and would be able to act on the ideas that he developed in the military, but was unable to do so," she says. "There are some people who blame that on others in the administration and say that he was ill used by them. There are others that blame it more on him, that he allowed himself to be used by the administration."
In November 2004, Colin Powell announced his resignation as Secretary of State and returned to private life, where, he insists, he plans to stay.
"There are a number of charities and educational activities that I have an interest in," Powell says. "I have a particular interest in children's programs and disadvantaged children's programs. I'm going to find ways to show support to them and work in that field."
General Powell is involved in America's Promise, an organization he founded in 1997 to help children from all walks of life. And he helped establish the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at City College of New York, his alma mater. Biographer Karen DeYoung says Colin Powell is still a hero for many Americans, inspiring them with his enthusiasm and attitude to give back and help others.